From Small Causes Great Events – Part One


Everyone should understand and appreciate the significance of great events and great men upon history. Had either Darius or Xerxes emerged victorious in any of the Graeco-Persian wars, Greek and, as a result, Western civilization would have been terminated in its infancy, completely changing the world as we know it. Had Islam triumphed at Chalons (451), Poitiers (732), Lepanto (1571) or Vienna (1529 & 1683) Mohamed’s vision of a worldwide caliphate might now be a reality. Had the Battle of the Virginia Capes (1781) followed the usual course of events in English versus French encounters during the period when the Royal Navy ruled the waves, the American Revolution might have ended in defeat rather than victory at Yorktown.

Everyone should also understand the relationship of cause and effect upon history. Everyone should appreciate that in the interplay of the myriad details that bring history into being everything is connected, yet nothing about the chronicle is inevitable, nothing about the saga is fixed. Few, however, do. Indeed some experts would have us believe there are no great events, that history is the inexorable result of wide spread trends, mass movements, the realm of ideas; that individuals do not matter, there are no great men; that details are inconsequential, minutiae swept up in the vast and overwhelming tide of human actions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Events balance precariously on the fulcrum of human interaction and the smallest details can tip the outcome of those events one way or another. Great men can rise or fall due as much to random chance as to their own abilities. Great events sometimes hinge on the most trivial, even absurd things. When the present becomes the past and scribes put pen to paper the details are lost in the broad sweep of their musings. In time the element of chance is forgotten. Only then do scholars speak of destiny or inevitability.

In his treatise, Bellum Gallicum, no less a history maker than Julius Caesar observed, “In Bello Parvis Momentis Magni Casus Intercedunt.” (In war great events are the results of small causes.) Caesar had the truth of it. Undeniably, there are cycles and trends to history. As the stories that follow demonstrate however, the details are just as crucial to the account of great events and great men that is history. Follow the connections, for that is what makes history truly fascinating; study the small causes, for they are the genesis of great events.

Part One – Chance and the Rise and Fall of Great Men

Battle is a capricious affair. In the maelstrom of shot and shell one man is struck down while the man at his side escapes unscathed. In the ebb and flow of combat the reputation of one man is gilded while that of another, equally capable man, is destroyed. Consider the case of Lieutenant General William Henry Ewart Gott. A large man with an aggressive, extroverted personality, Gott served with distinction as part of the British Expeditionary Force in the trenches of France during World War I. His record as General Officer Commanding, 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats) during Operations Brevity, Battleaxe and Crusader in North Africa during World War II however, was not impressive. As the historian J. A. I. Agar-Hamilton noted, “It has not been unknown for a commander to pass from disaster to disaster, but it is quite without precedent for any commander to pass from promotion to promotion as a reward for a succession of disasters.” In spite of his record, Gott was brevetted to Lieutenant General and given command of XIII Corps in early 1942. In August, when Churchill decided to remove General Sir Claude Auchinleck as Commander in Chief Middle East and acting General Officer Commanding Eighth Army, Gott was selected as Auchinleck’s replacement. Churchill made his decision over the objections of General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who felt Gott, having served continuously in the desert since the war began, had lost his customary energy and determination and lacked the experience necessary for army command. En route to Cairo to take leave prior to assuming command, Gott was killed when the Bristol Bombay transport plane in which he was a passenger was jumped by two Bf-109’s of JG27. The flight leader, Emil Clade, piloting one of the German fighters, scored the initial hits on the hapless transport. UFFZ Bernd Schneider then strafed the downed plane and is credited with the kill. Only the pilot, second pilot, navigator, wireless operator and medical orderly escaped the crash. Gott and fourteen sick or wounded men trapped inside the fuselage died in the flaming wreckage. Gott’s chosen replacement was Lieutenant General Bernard Law Montgomery. The rest, as they say, is history. But imagine the ramifications of the North African campaigns of 1942-1943 with the Eighth Army, in less capable hands, pitted against the Afrika Korps under Rommel, the Desert Fox.

Consider now the events of 06-07 April 1862, the Battle of Shiloh, forty-eight hours that will make and break careers and consequently, have a monumental impact on the outcome of the American Civil War.

War Comes to Shiloh

Following his victory at Fort Donelson, Major General Ulysses S. Grant moved the Army of the Tennessee (45,000 men) to Pittsburg Landing where he established his Headquarters. There he planned to join forces with Major General Don Carlos Buell, marching southwest from Nashville with 37,000 men of the Army of the Ohio, later renamed the Army of the Cumberland. Together they planned to strike a decisive blow against Corinth, Mississippi – junction of the Memphis & Charleston and Mobile & Ohio railroads. From Corinth lines ran east to Chattanooga and south to Mobile connecting the trans-Mississippi states and the Gulf Coast to Atlanta and, from there, to Richmond. Supplies from those areas were vital to the success of the Army of Northern Virginia and therefore, the survival of the nascent Confederate nation. Recognizing the logistic and strategic importance of Corinth, General Albert Sidney Johnston and his second in command General P. G. T. Beauregard determined to attack Grant before he could unite with Buell, defeating the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of the Ohio in detail. By concentrating various scattered commands Johnston gathered about 45,000 men and, seizing the initiative, began the twenty-three mile march from Corinth to Pittsburg Landing on 03 April. Rain and inexperience turned what should have been a one day march into a three day ordeal of mud and confusion, negating Johnston’s carefully crafted time table. Exhausted, the Confederates finally finished their approach march late on 05 April. Johnston feared he had lost the element of surprise but resolved to give battle regardless, stating “I would fight them if they were a million.” He need not have worried. The six divisions of the Army of the Tennessee were encamped from Crump’s Landing (four miles north of Pittsburg Landing) to Shiloh Meeting House (four miles southwest of Pittsburg Landing), had made no effort to form defensive works and, in spite of skirmishing between Union pickets and Confederate scouts, Grant and Sherman dismissed numerous reports of Rebel activity from subordinates as ‘nerves.’ Consequently the Union army remained peaceably bivouacked.

Topography and Battle Plans

In 1862 Shiloh was a wooded area, dotted with about two dozen fields that had been cleared for farming. Numerous streams drained the region forming steep hills and deep ravines where they flowed into the Tennessee River. In short, ideal ground for defense, which Grant, convinced the Confederates could not or would not attack, failed to utilize. Instead Grant opted for comfortable billets and the opportunity to train his many raw recruits in drill while he waited to join forces with Buell. When the Confederate blow fell however, the rough terrain allowed Union troops to quickly form a series of defensive lines, most notably at the Hornet’s Nest, a nearly impassable copse of oak and tangled undergrowth.

In so far as the ground favored the Union defense by the same measure it severely hampered the rebel attack. Johnston’s grand Napoleonic alignment of four corps in echelon, designed for a massive, concentrated assault was broken up more by terrain than by Union resistance. As units moved forward they became separated, then hopelessly co-mingled with other units, adding to the confusion resultant from fallen officers and general inexperience. Most significantly, Johnston’s plan to assault Grant’s left flank, push the Union host away from the Tennessee River and trap it against Owl Creek was compromised by the numerous ravines along the river bank. The rebels would have been better served had Johnston assigned each Corps a designated sector with one Corps in reserve to reinforce success in any one area. Even so, tactical surprise nearly carried the day for the Confederate army.

0500-1200 The Battle of the Camps

Under the cover of darkness the Confederates formed line of battle with the troops of Major General William J. Hardee commanding III Corps (three brigades totaling approximately 7000 men) followed by those of Major General Braxton Bragg (II Corps consisting of six brigades, 16000 men), Major General Leonidas Polk (I Corps, four brigades, 7000 men) and the Reserve Corps commanded by the former Vice-President of the United States (1857-1861) Brigadier General John C. Breckinridge (three brigades, 7000 men). Greatly aided by Union complacency regarding reports of Confederate troop movements, Johnston completely surprised Grant with his dawn attack on 06 April 1862 near Shiloh Meeting House, a Methodist Church whose name means Place of Peace. Charging Confederates under Hardee caught Union forces emerging from their tents or at breakfast and initially swept them from the field. As resistance stiffened Bragg joined the assault and the hastily formed Union lines at Shiloh Church, Seay Field and Spanish Field disintegrated.

1200-1800 The Hornet’s Nest

But for a heroic delaying action by men under the command of Brigadier General Prentis in an area that would become known as the “Hornet’s Nest” and a breakdown in Confederate command and control the rebels might have pushed the Army of the Tennessee into its namesake river on the morning of 06 April. Under the inspired leadership of Prentis, the remnants of his division rallied and, reinforced by two brigades of the 4th Division under the command of Brigadier General Stephen Hurlbut, plus the 2nd Division commanded by Brigadier General W. H. L. Wallace, held off repeated Confederate attacks on the Federal center for nearly seven hours. Due to poor coordination the rebels made no less than twelve piecemeal attacks on the Hornet’s Nest, each one repulsed with heavy losses. Finally, around 1600, Brigadier General Daniel Ruggles massed eleven batteries, some 62 cannon, on Duncan field and began pounding the Union line. Under the cover of this devastating fire the Confederates were able to outflank the position that had cost them so dearly in time and blood, taking 2,300 Yankees captive.

1400 The Death of A. S. Johnston

After a final conference with Beauregard early on 06 April, Johnston mounted his horse, Fire Eater, and rode to the sound of the guns to supervise troop movements at the front. Beauregard remained at the Confederate Headquarters in the rear to coordinate activity there and channel reinforcements where they were needed. Around 1400, as he was organizing an assault, Johnston was wounded in the right calf, directly behind the knee. In the heat of battle he did not realize he had been seriously hurt but the shell had torn the popliteal artery and, as his boot filled with blood, Johnston slowly bled to death. Johnston continued to give commands until he fell from his saddle around 1430. Earlier Johnston had dispatched his personal physician to tend Union wounded. A simple tourniquet would have saved his life but Johnston expired before the nature of his wound was discovered and he could receive medical attention. Upon Johnston’s death command passed to General Beauregard.

1800-2000 Grant Holds

Given precious time to rally his men and form a defensive line just north of the Dill Branch and east of Tillman or Tilghman Creek (on some maps annotated as Glover Branch) along the Pittsburg Landing and River roads and supported by the gunboats USS Tyler and USS Lexington who enfiladed the rebel lines with heavy naval cannon, Union forces held. At the front General Bragg attempted to organize a final push to dislodge the badly shaken Union forces securing a Confederate victory before Buell could add his weight to that of Grant. He was overruled by General Beauregard who concluded the men were too tired and too disorganized to mount an effective assault so late in the day. Besides, he reasoned, surely Grant would use the cover of darkness to cross the Tennessee River and slip away. In this Beauregard misjudged Grant completely.

07 April Counterattack

The following day, reinforced by advance elements of the Army of the Ohio and the Third Infantry Division under Major General Lewis “Lew” Wallace, Grant was able to muster 54,000 effectives in spite of his losses on 06 April. Mauled on the first day, Beauregard had only 34,000 men able to carry on the contest. In a mirror image of the first day, Grant launched a broad front counterattack that drove the battered rebel forces from the field where 13,000 Union and 10,700 Confederate soldiers gave their all. As the Union troops had the day before, the Confederates made several attempts to hold but the weary rebels no longer had the strength to oppose the Union juggernaut and by the end of the day found themselves back at Shiloh church.

Fallen Timbers

Unable to resist the resurgent Union army, General P. G. T. Beauregard left Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest to cover the rebel retreat back to Corinth. Pursued by Brigadier General William T. Sherman, Forrest and his cavalrymen fought a short, sharp rearguard action at Fallen Timbers. During that engagement Forrest was severely wounded and Sherman nearly captured. In his after action report Sherman wrote, “I, and the rest of my staff ingloriously fled, pell mell, through the mud, closely followed by Forrest and his men.” At the annual meeting of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee in 1881 Sherman elaborated, stating, “I am sure that had he (Forrest) not emptied his pistols as he passed the skirmish line, my career would have ended right there.” The rains that had plagued both armies since 03 April picked up again that evening and Grant, his army as disorganized in victory as the rebels were in defeat, made no further serious effort to pursue the beaten enemy.


Shiloh has been called “The Battle of Blunders.” This should come as no surprise for in 1862 untrained, untested recruits far outnumbered seasoned veterans. In many units officers were elected by the rank and file based on popularity rather than experience. Others were lead by men who had purchased their commission, obtained command through political connections, or simply were wealthy enough to raise a unit when the various states issued their call to arms. Armies exceeding 100,000 had never taken the field in America before. Therefore even those few West Point graduates who had served in the Mexican-American War had no experience leading hosts of such magnitude. Technical advancements in rifles, pistols and cannon had far outpaced theories of war. Indeed there had been little or no change in tactics since Napoleon had marched through Europe. The learning curve in 1861-1862 was steep and every lesson cost dearly in blood. There were many errors in judgment and more than enough blame to go around in the early years of the Civil War. Then as now, culpability was not shared equally.

Over 100,000 men fought at Shiloh, the first major engagement in the Western Theatre. In just two days, twenty per cent of the Union forces and twenty-four per cent of the Confederate forces engaged were killed, wounded or missing. The enormity of the butcher’s bill, nearly 24,000 casualties in just one battle, more than all previous American wars combined, appalled the civilian population, North and South, disabusing the illusion that this would be a short, glorious war. In the furor that followed Shiloh, Grant’s superior, General Halleck, and others envious of his growing reputation, called for Grant’s removal for incompetence. Fortunately Grant’s career was salvaged by President Lincoln who stated, “I cannot spare this man. He fights.” Contrast that outcome with the fate of General Lew Wallace whose Third Division was in reserve at Pittsburgh Landing approximately five miles from Shiloh when the Confederates attacked at 0500 on 06 April. Due to confusing orders and washed out roads his hapless troops spent the entire day marching and counter-marching, not arriving where they were badly needed until after 1900, too late to take part in the first day’s battle. Although he acquitted himself well on the second day, rightly or wrongly Wallace’s here-to-fore promising career ended in disgrace at Shiloh. He was blamed for the near disaster on the first day and Wallace spent the remainder of the war in inconsequential commands on secondary fronts.[1]

What If

Imagine the Civil War fought without Grant had he suffered the same fate as his subordinate, General Wallace, after Shiloh. Suppose Grant had been denied the support of his most trusted and most competent lieutenant had Sherman been killed or captured at Fallen Timbers. For the South, the death of General Johnston is hard to measure. Had he survived would he have become the Robert E. Lee of the Western Theatre? On that historians can only speculate. What is known is that his successors, Beauregard and Bragg, despite their impressive pre-war records, proved unequal to the task and John Bell Hood was a disaster for the Southern cause when he assumed command in July 1864.

Ripples of Battle

As Victor Davis Hanson brilliantly noted, the ripples of battle carry far beyond the immediate military repercussions to influence all aspects of society, as the rest of the story of Lew Wallace and other notables present at Shiloh will attest.

Lew Wallace spent the remainder of his life trying, vainly, to remove the stain of Shiloh from his military career. Although he failed in that endeavor he found great success in other areas. He served on the court that tried Lincoln’s assassins and was President of the Court that heard the case against Henry Wirz, former commander of the notorious Andersonville Prisoner of War camp. Most famously, while serving as Governor of the New Mexico Territories in 1880 he wrote the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Ben-Hur remained the bestselling American novel from 1880 until 1936 when Margaret Mitchell published Gone with the Wind. Ben-Hur was adapted to stage and played to sold out crowds throughout the world for twenty-one years. With the advent of film, movie adaptations of Ben-Hur were released in 1907, 1925, 1959 and 2003. The 1959 version, staring Charlton Heston, won eleven academy awards and was the highest grossing film of 1960.

Like many ambitious men throughout history, James Abram Garfield saw military service as an opportunity to further his political career and, conversely, politics as means to further his military career. Using his connections he obtained a commission, enjoyed some minor success in battle and by 1862 had risen to the rank of Brigadier General commanding the 20th Brigade, 6th Division, Army of the Ohio. In October 1862 Garfield’s military reputation helped him win a seat in Congress as a Representative from Ohio. So far all was going according to design. Then he hit a snag. His unit was the last to reach Shiloh. Consequently he saw no action in that engagement. Needing further glory for further advancement, following Shiloh he hitched his wagon to the rising star of General Rosecrans, accepting the position as his Chief of Staff. The best laid plans however often go awry. Rosecrans was soundly defeated at Chickamauga. To make matters worse, the retreat to Chattanooga and the prolonged siege that followed were an unmitigated disaster. Garfield managed to avoid any guilt by association but astutely realized this was an opportune time to leave the Army. Garfield resigned his commission to take up the seat he had won in October 1862 entering in Congress in December 1863. He served in the House of Representatives for eight straight terms before being selected to the Senate in 1880. Garfield attended the Republican National Convention that same year intending to nominate John Sherman, younger brother of William Tecumseh Sherman, as the Republican Party’s candidate for president. When the convention became deadlocked between Sherman, Grant and Blaine however, Garfield became the compromise choice. After lengthy debate, he was nominated on the thirty-sixth ballot. In the election of 1880 Garfield defeated his Democratic opponent, another distinguished Union officer, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, to become the 20th President of the United States. He took office on 04 March 1881. Garfield was a reformer and might have gone down in history as one of the better presidents. Regrettably, he did not complete his term. At the pinnacle of his political career, when all his plans had come to fruition, this survivor of Shiloh was shot by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled office seeker, on 02 July 1881. [2] Garfield lingered for eighty days, battling blood poisoning, bronchial pneumonia and infection. A massive heart attack and a ruptured splenic artery aneurysm ended his life on 19 September 1881. Garfield was the only man ever elected to the Presidency directly from the House of Representatives and was for a short time a sitting Representative, Senator-select and President-elect, but he is now best known as the second American president to be assassinated. Chester A. Arthur succeeded Garfield. To his credit, Arthur implemented many of Garfield’s reform policies.

When civil war came to Louisiana, John Rowlands enlisted as a private in Company E, 6th Arkansas Infantry. His unit was part of 1st Brigade, Confederate III Corps at Shiloh. During a charge on the first day Rowlands was struck in the abdomen by a Minie ball and knocked to the ground. When he recovered his senses Rowlands found his belt buckle dented. Otherwise he was unhurt. During a charge on the second day at Shiloh, Rowlands found himself well ahead of his comrades, surrounded by Yankees. Along with hundreds of other captured Rebels, Rowlands was interned at Camp Douglas, a former stockyard near Chicago. Conditions were so deplorable at Camp Douglas that Rowlands deserted the Confederacy and enlisted in the Union Army as what was known as a “Galvanized Yankee.” His service lasted only eighteen days. Rowlands was discharged at Harpers Ferry on 22 June 1862 for poor health, a result of his imprisonment at Camp Douglas. Two years later Rowlands had recovered sufficiently to reenlist on 19 July 1864 – this time in the Union Navy. He served onboard the USS Minnesota, rising to the rank of Petty Officer. Shipboard life did not suit John Rowlands however. He jumped ship in February 1865, earning him the dubious distinction of deserting from both sides during the same war.

The story does not end there however. After the war Rowlands became a journalist, working overseas as a reporter for various newspapers. In 1869 he became a correspondent for the New York Herald, landing an assignment that would make him famous around the world. You see John Rowlands, born in 1841 in Denbigh, Wales, the illegitimate, impoverished son of Elizabeth Parry, left Saint Asaph Union Workhouse for the poor in 1859, serving as a cabin boy on a ship bound for New Orleans. There he was adopted by a wealthy merchant and took the name Henry Morton Stanley. Following the “Doctor Livingstone, I presume” incident Stanley became an explorer in his own right, most notably, charting the Congo river, an epic journey that lasted 999 days and claimed the lives of two-thirds of the expedition.[3] Stanley lived a remarkable life, even by Victorian standards, capping his storybook career by serving in Parliament from 1895-1900. For service to the British Empire he was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in 1899. From Welsh poorhouse to international fame, from deserter to Knight, the fantastic chronicle of Rowlands aka Stanley came to a close with his death on 10 May 1904.

Part Two – Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Circumstances, Great Events

History is replete with examples of courage under fire; gallant stands by a handful of men against overwhelming odds, small battles that greatly influenced the outcome of major wars.

In 480 B. C. Xerxes led a Persian host estimated at 200,000 against the Greek city-states. The upstart Greeks were fomenting trouble in Ionia with their radical ideas regarding democracy, ideas the all-powerful autocrat despised. Knowing they could not match Persian numbers in open battle the Hellenes abandoned northern Greece choosing instead to make a stand at Thermopylae. At the middle gate the defile along the coastal plain spans a mere fourteen feet. At this perfect defensive point superior Greek arms, armor and tactics negated Persian numbers. For three days Leonidas, King of the Spartans, with 7000 hoplites mustered from the various Greek city-states stood firm. Then a traitor revealed a little used mountain track around their position to the enemy. Outflanked by the ‘Immortals’ Xerxes elite infantry, many Greek contingents fled. Spurning surrender Leonidas and his Spartans fought to the death buying precious time for their countrymen to prepare. Despite their sacrifice at Thermopylae, Athens was lost. When combined with the subsequent naval victory at Salamis however, Greece was saved.

In 1854 French, British and Turkish forces besieged Sevastopol. On 25 October Prince Alexander Sergeievich Menshikov attempted to lift the allied siege. After a three hour preliminary bombardment Russian infantry charged and carried a Turkish redoubt. Russian heavy cavalry poured through the broken line and raced for Balaklava the British supply base. In a bloody clash the remnants of the retreating Turkish forces and the ‘Thin Red Line’ of the famous 93rd Highlanders threw the Russian Cuirassiers back.

Great men may figure prominently in history but they have no monopoly on great events. As the stories outlined above demonstrate, ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances can and do effect epic changes – the Battle of the Alamo, Rorke’s Drift and the RAF during the Battle of Britain also come to mind. Another example that deserves to be included occurred in 1942 when a handful of ‘diggers’ changed the course of World War II in the Pacific. Outside Australia, their story is little known.


The editors of Life magazine could not be accused of sensationalism for their 02 March 1942 cover page banner headline, NOW THE U. S. MUST FIGHT FOR ITS LIFE. In the spring of 1942 Allied prospects were indeed grim. Rommel was on the offensive in North Africa. In Europe the Wehrmacht survived the debacle at Moscow, blunted the Russian winter counter attack and would shortly launch campaigns in the Balkans and the Caucasus. The Japanese blitzkrieg continued unabated in Burma, China, the Dutch East Indies, French Indo-China, Malaya and the Philippines. Feature articles pondered Japanese invasions of Australia, Hawaii, even the United States. With only 100,000 hastily mustered, poorly trained, ill-equipped and inadequately supplied troops to defend the entire Pacific coast these stories were not as farfetched then as they appear now.

If America was unready, then Australia was even less prepared. Her best units were fighting with the British 8th Army or languishing in Japanese POW camps after the fall of Singapore. Protection by the Royal Navy sank with HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales. With the remainder of the fleet fighting for England’s survival in the Atlantic no additional ships could be spared for the Pacific.

Strategic decisions during World War II in the Pacific centered on airfields. Land based air power projected sea control / sea denial capabilities out 300 miles or more. If Imperial Forces captured the airstrips around Port Moresby, New Guinea isolation of Australia was possible; invasion of Queensland quite probable. In either case damage to the Allied cause might be irrevocable. The naval battle of Coral Sea (3-8 May) ended the sea borne threat to Port Moresby. Well aware of New Guinea’s strategic significance, on 21 July 1942 the Japanese countered by landing 11,000 troops at Buna and Gona on New Guinea’s northern coast. With 6000 troops Major General Tomitaro Horii immediately pushed inland toward Port Moresby 130 miles south. It was now a race against time for both the Australians and the Japanese. Thousands would fight and die in some of the worst terrain imaginable along the Kokoda Trail, the narrow track that crosses the Owen Stanley Range linking Gona and Port Moresby.

New Guinea

The world’s second largest island, New Guinea is geologically young with volcanic peaks reaching 16,000 feet. The Owen Stanley Range divides the island North and South. Numerous streams and rivers further split the island East and West. Located just eleven degrees below the equator, constantly inundated with heavy rainfall, covered with dense vegetation, most of New Guinea is a hot, humid, equatorial jungle. Violent rains dump up to an inch of water in five minutes. Rivers rise as much as nine inches per hour. Yet at altitude trekkers suffer from hypothermia brought about by sudden hailstorms. To call New Guinea inhospitable is an egregious understatement. It is a primordial world, like something penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Jules Verne. Not even the discovery of gold in the 1930’s could tame New Guinea. As James Bradley writes in The Boys Saved Australia, “a road just seventy miles long was deemed impossible to build and planes had to ferry supplies in and ore out.”

To reach their objective the Japanese first had to traverse the formidable Owen Stanley Range via the Kokoda Trail. Trail implies a peaceful, winding path. The Kokoda Trail is nothing of the sort. A dangerous, narrow track hacked out of the jungle and carved out of the mountains, it crosses the Owen Stanley Range at 7000 feet via a series of twisting switchbacks and rough-hewn steps cut into steep slopes. Prior to the war it was considered passable only by natives and provincial officers. The optimistic figure of 130 air miles from Gona to Port Moresby held a far different reality on the ground where exhausted soldiers struggled first through dense jungle followed by a backbreaking climb. As if thick rain forests, rugged mountains, swift, treacherous streams and muddy, precipitous drops were not daunting enough obstacles in themselves a plethora of poisonous insects, dangerous wildlife, tropical diseases and cannibalistic headhunters awaited those who strayed too far from the beaten path.

Australian versus Japanese Forces

To counter the Japanese threat Australia rushed a militia unit, the AMF 39th Battalion, up the Kokoda Trail. Clad in khaki uniforms appropriate for desert conditions but completely unsuited for jungle warfare, shod in leather boots which soon rotted away, equipped with World War I vintage Enfield rifles the Aussies were supported by nothing heavier than light mortars and Bren and Lewis machine guns. Further the 39th had just completed basic training, had no combat and certainly no jungle experience.

In contrast Major General Horii’s command, designated the South Seas Detachment (Nankai Shitai), was comprised of elite troops, veterans of earlier campaigns. Clothed in green camouflage uniforms, shod in functional jungle boots, they carried little food (hoping to live off the land and captured supplies) but large quantities of ammunition. They also carried heavy mortars, heavy machine guns and even mountain artillery for support.

For the Japanese, success depended upon speed. They must cross the Owen Stanley Range capturing Port Moresby before Allied reinforcements arrived in substantial numbers. Once in Japanese hands, its airfields would ferry in the troops, supplies and equipment necessary for further operations. Foregoing provisions for mobility, Horii counted on Yamato Damashii (Japanese Spirit) and overwhelming firepower to carry the day. Pushing forward relentlessly, scouts sprinted ahead of the main body sacrificing their lives to flush out and target enemy positions.

For their part, the 39th pushed across the Kokoda Trail first halting the Japanese at Wasida 23-27 July. Outnumbered and outgunned, for sixty days the Aussies conducted a heroic fighting withdrawal, turning to face their determined opponents at Kokoda (28 July), Deniki (29 July-11 August), Seregina (2-5 September), Efogi (8 September), and Menari (16 September). The final confrontation took place at Ioribaiwa 17-26 September. At that point the depleted South Seas Detachment held positions within thirty miles of Port Moresby. At night, its lights beckoned the weary Japanese. Scourged with malaria, racked with dysentery, weakened by hunger, the Japanese could advance no further. On 23 September, two months after the Japanese landings at Buna and Gona, the 7th Australian Division counterattacked. Now it was the Japanese who conducted a bitter fighting withdrawal over the Owen Stanley Range. By November, the remnants of Horii’s force were entrenched in the Buna – Gona area. Reinforced by the American 32nd Division, Gona fell to Allied forces on 9 December. Buna finally capitulated in January 1943.

The Human Cost

Fighting in New Guinea was especially gruesome. Rugged terrain, foul climate, tenuous supply lines and, with so much at stake, the desperation of both combatants magnified the always-brutal nature of close quarters combat.

Provisions were limited to what the soldiers carried and what could be packed in. Ammunition got top priority, food second, hospital supplies third. Consequently medicine was always in short supply, often non-existent. Lacking any other medical, care Jim Moir and many other soldiers allowed blowflies to lay eggs in their wounds. The resultant maggots ate their rotten flesh keeping the wound clean and preventing gangrene.

Out of necessity, stretcher-bearers were limited to only the most severely wounded. When Japanese machinegun fire shattered Charles Metson’s lower leg medics fabricated a splint out of banana leaves. Refusing a litter, Metson wrapped his hands and knees in rags and crawled down the trail he had so laboriously climbed just days before. Such was the spirit and the fortitude of the 39th Battalion.


The Supreme Commander, Allied Forces, Southwest Pacific never visited the front, ignored reports on conditions and dismissed intelligence estimates on Japanese strength. Far removed from the desperate fighting, comfortably housed and safely ensconced at their Brisbane Headquarters the “Bataan Bunch” (as the Aussies derisively labeled MacArthur and his staff) railed against the Australians, first over their continuous retreat, then for the time-consuming counter offensive. In a dispatch to Washington, MacArthur cabled, “The Australians lack fighting spirit.” MacArthur further damaged relations when he signaled, “Operation reports show that progress on the trail is not repeat not satisfactory.” Given an undeservedly deficient reputation by the refugees from the Philippines, Australian units were relegated to secondary fronts for the remainder of the war.

MacArthur’s questionable opinion does not bear close scrutiny. Fighting horrendous conditions as well as the Japanese, the Australians gave Japan its first defeat on land. The significance of that achievement cannot be overstated.

Japanese victory in New Guinea changes the entire strategic picture. Japanese planes based in Port Moresby could have interdicted Allied supply lines isolating Australia. To ensure she remained in the war, troops earmarked for the Solomons would have been diverted, postponing Guadalcanal for six months or a year. Given additional time to dig in the inevitable Allied counterattack becomes even more costly.

The battles described in the prologue were not chosen randomly. The naval victory at Salamis overshadowed the deadly confrontation at Thermopylae, just as the naval engagement at Midway eclipsed the battle of the Kokoda Trail. Even though they fought courageously in the Crimean War, the Turks were vilified by Lord Raglan (covering his own desultory performance and deadly tactical mistakes) and used as human pack animals for the remainder of the conflict. So too MacArthur used the Australians badly, maligning them publicly, giving them subordinate roles in inconsequential areas for the balance of World War II.

Never the less, if Midway was the turning point for the United States, then New Guinea was the defining moment for Australia. Although comparatively few troops were engaged their spirit was unmatched and the battle of the Kokoda Trail greatly influenced the outcome of the Pacific War. On 29 August of each year Australians rightfully observe ‘Kokoda Day’ to honor the young men who endured so much to protect their homeland.


Then as now, a precious few ordinary men and women in distant lands confront the forces of terror under extraordinary conditions, preserving the freedoms others take for granted. Outside their friends and family their names are largely unknown, but by their sacrifice they preserve and carry forward the legacy of Thermopylae, Balaklava and Kokoda; through their service they influence great events yet to come to pass.

Part Three – Consequences / Connections

All man’s activities impact not only the present but also the future [4] , none more so than war. As Winston Churchill remarked, “Great battles change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new moods, in armies and in nations.” War sends major and minor shock waves through time affecting distant generations in ways unimaginable in the present. These influences may be as trivial as shorter hemlines to conserve fabric or steel pennies in place of copper, or as significant as an ‘Iron Curtain’ separating former allies and heralding a fifty-year Cold War. On a grand scale, empires may rise or fall with a single battle. More immediately, wars dramatically impact families, continuing some lines, brutally ending others. As Herodotus observed, “In war, fathers bury sons rather than sons fathers.”

This section examines the Japanese / Soviet confrontation at Nomonhan, a relatively minor battle that had a major impact on World War II, appraising not only the immediate consequences of this encounter but also its long-term connections.


An editorial in the 20 July 1939 New York Times described the conflict between the Soviet Union and Japan on the border of Outer Mongolia and the puppet state of Manchukuo as, “A strange war raging in a thoroughly out-of-the-way corner of the world where it cannot attract attention.” Indeed, geography, the compulsive secrecy second nature to both combatants and the subsequent outbreak of World War II in Europe combined to overshadow this little known but nonetheless critical, battle. Boasting the most extensive use of tanks and aircraft since World War I, Nomonhan, or Khalkin Gol as it was called by the Soviets, impacted World War II in areas far beyond the immediate scope of the battlefield.

Nomonhan was the culmination of nearly fifty years of Russo – Japanese rivalry in the Far East. The Russo – Japanese War of 1905 followed Japan’s occupation of Korea. Japan then antagonized the new Soviet state when she intervened in Siberia during the Russian Civil War. Japan’s seizure of Manchuria, renamed Manchukuo, in 1931 created a 3000-mile border between two suspicious, hostile, diametrically opposed ideologies. The Changkufeng / Lake Khasan incident of 1938 was but a dress rehearsal for further hostilities. Consequently, what began as a minor clash between Soviet sponsored Mongolian cavalry and Japanese supported Manchukuoan cavalry on the Halha River rapidly escalated into a major campaign with far reaching consequences.


In May 1939, Soviet units crossing the Halha River into disputed territory were driven back by Japanese forces but returned the following day in greater strength. Reacting to this affront the Kwantung Army dispatched the Yamagata Detachment with orders to drive out the Russian invaders and seal the border. In the ensuing battle one Japanese regiment was encircled and destroyed, the remaining Japanese troops routed and driven from the field. Acting against direct orders from Tokyo the Kwantung Army unilaterally decided to retaliate sending the 23rd Infantry Division, the 26th and 28th Regiments of the 7th Infantry Division, the 3rd and 4th Armored Regiments (the Yasuoka Detachment) plus significant artillery and air support to settle the issue.

Phase two of the offensive began in early July with the 23rd Division crossing the upper reaches of the Halha while mechanized elements struck directly at Soviet forces on the right bank of the river. After making some initial gains the Japanese attack stalled. When the Soviets counterattacked, the Japanese found their lightly armored and under gunned tanks hopelessly outclassed by Soviet BT models. The Japanese rushed additional infantry, armor, aircraft and heavy artillery to the front, renewing the offensive in late July. Stopped cold, the Japanese now dug in and waited. Hoping to restrain the defiant Kwantung Army HQ and end the conflict before it escalated any further negatively impacting the ongoing offensive in China, the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff in Tokyo designated the units around Nomonhan 6th Army and dispatched a cadre of officers to manage the situation. This effort was a classic case of too little, too late for the initiative had passed to the USSR.

The Soviets also pushed strong reinforcements, many of them veterans of the Spanish Civil War, to the region and their logistics system proved remarkably adept considering the distances involved. On 20 August, they launched a two pronged mass attack. In a pattern that would become all too familiar to the Wehrmacht, mechanized units, heavily supported by artillery and aircraft, spearheaded the assault. Japanese lines crumbled. Threatened with encirclement, her shattered forces fell back. Only the German invasion of Poland prevented their complete destruction and further Soviet exploitation. Recognizing Hitler as the greater danger and anxious to avoid a two front conflict, the Soviets offered a cease-fire in mid September, which the battered Japanese eagerly accepted in order to concentrate its efforts on China.

Consequences / Connections

At the battles’ peak the Japanese fielded approximately 75,000 men, the Soviets perhaps 100,000. While the Russians claimed 50,000 enemy casualties the Japanese acknowledged losses of 8,400 killed and 8,766 wounded. The Soviets conceded 9,284 casualties. A relatively minor engagement by World War II standards, why is Nomonhan significant?

• The Kwantung Army demonstrated it was a law unto itself making policy decisions rightfully the purview of the government. Its continued obsession with China and independent actions there eventually destroyed Imperial Japan .[5]

• Nomonhan launched the career of General Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov [6] , future Marshal of the Soviet Union, savior of Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad, and architect of the crushing Soviet counteroffensive that began at Kursk and ended in Berlin.

• Zhukov’s methods – elaborate defense in depth; [7] intricate deceptive measures; meticulously planned, carefully coordinated and skillfully executed attacks with overwhelming masses of infantry, artillery, aircraft and armor; battles of encirclement followed by methodical destruction; complete disregard for human cost – became the stock and trade of the Red Army.

• Observing Soviet actions in Finland rather than Nomonhan, Hitler drew erroneous and ultimately disastrous conclusions regarding the Red Army’s capability and resilience.[8] Stalin’s purges decimated the Red Army Officer Corps. Consequently inexperience, inadequate training and pure fear of Stalin’s displeasure resulted in a prodigious waste of manpower. However, when capably led by an experienced general such as Zhukov (one of the few of the old guard who managed to avoid Stalin’s paranoid cleansing of all possible rivals) the Red Army was still a credible force.

• Nomonhan revealed critical weaknesses in Japanese arms, armor, tactics, doctrine and especially logistics. The lessons learned led to the creation of triangular (heavy) divisions designed and equipped to meet the Soviets on equal terms and pentagonal (light) divisions organized to fight the Nationalist Chinese and for counter insurgency operations.

• Most importantly perhaps, until Nomonhan the Japanese favored a Northern or Army strategy of continued expansion in China and eventual war with the Soviet Union. The shocking defeat at Nomonhan convinced the Japanese to adopt a Southern or Naval strategy centered on the vital resources of Southeast Asia even at the cost of bringing the United States into the war. In so doing Imperial Japan turned away from possible victory (a coordinated Axis attack on Russia in 1941) to certain defeat (war with America).

Part Four – Cause and Effect

While inspecting General Banks’ army at Carrollton 04 September 1863 General Grant was given a large, nervous horse to ride for the pass in review ceremony. In his Personal Memoirs Grant recounts, “The horse I rode was vicious and but little used, and on my return to New Orleans ran away and, shying at a locomotive, fell, probably on me.” Grant lay insensible in a nearby hotel for over a week and was on crutches for two months afterward. Imagine the American Civil War fought without Ulysses S. Grant, thrown from his horse and killed two months after the fall of Vicksburg. Consider the case of Premier Canovas of Spain, a strong man whose policies might have suppressed the growing insurrection in Cuba. Assassinated in 1897 by Miguel Angiolillo, an obscure Italian anarchist long since forgotten to history, the Cuban rebellion escalated into the Spanish – American war one year later. San Juan Hill launched the career of Teddy Roosevelt who succeeded to the Presidency when yet another anarchist assassinated William McKinley. No Miguel Angiolillo, no Spanish – American war, no San Juan Hill, no Teddy Roosevelt Presidency, no Bull Moose Party to split the Republican Party and, consequently, Woodrow Wilson loses in 1912, altering the course of World War I. In the realm of cause and effect such possibilities are endless and endlessly fascinating. Given the scope of World War II, opportunities for the human factor to make itself felt are especially numerous, the ramifications particularly noteworthy; the probability of some minor element to unhinge major plans frequent, the implications exceptionally intriguing.

What If

Standing on the bridge of his flagship, the converted battle cruiser Akagi [9] , Admiral Chuichi Nagumo watched with satisfaction as his well trained air crews moved purposefully about the flight deck refueling and rearming the Nakajima B5N (97-2) ‘Kate’ torpedo bombers, Aichi D3A (99-1) ‘Val’ dive bombers and Mitsubishi A6M (0-3) ‘Zeke’ or ‘Zero’ fighters. Scanning the task force steaming with Akagi, Nagumo noted similar activity on the fleet carriers Hiryu, Kaga, Shokaku, Soryu, and Zuikaku. Escorting the aircraft carriers of the Kido Butai were the battleships Hiei and Kirishima, the heavy cruisers Chikuma and Tone, and the light cruiser Abukuma. Twelve destroyers and seven auxiliary oilers completed the Pearl Harbor Strike Force.[10]

The reports from the first two strikes had been staggering. At a cost of nine fighters, fifteen dive bombers, and five torpedo bombers his men had sunk the battleships Arizona, California, Oklahoma, Utah[11] , and West Virginia, badly damaged the Maryland, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Tennessee and destroyed or severely damaged over three hundred military aircraft stationed on Oahu.[12]

Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, still in his flight gear, reported to Nagumo. Recognizing the rare opportunity that beckoned Fuchida argued vociferously for follow on strikes. Nothing in Nagumo’s face revealed his inner turmoil as he listened impassively. Fuchida’s arguments were sound but where were the American carriers? Were the Enterprise, Lexington and Saratoga lurking over the horizon; their planes inbound even now, manned with grim faced crews seeking vengeance? With his flight decks fouled with planes, ordnance and fuel, a few well placed bombs would turn triumph into disaster in a matter of moments. With a barely perceptible nod Nagumo finally gave his assent. Saluting smartly Fuchida hurried to brief his waiting pilots.

The third strike completed the destruction of battleship row and added numerous cruisers and destroyers to the growing list of stricken ships. In addition the submarine base where four subs were berthed was targeted. The fourth strike focused on the repair facilities, machine shops and power plant, making salvage of the ravaged fleet impossible. The coup de grace however, was the destruction of the oil tank farms containing 4.5 million barrels of fuel. Rendered useless as a forward operating base the American fleet abandoned Hawaii. Her remaining carriers, cruisers and destroyers were ordered to Long Beach, San Francisco and Seattle. In addition, much to the delight of Admiral Donitz and his U-Boat commanders and the dismay of Prime Minister Churchill and his naval staff, ships were withdrawn from the Atlantic fleet to help defend the now vulnerable American west coast. Quickly taking advantage of the strategic situation, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto ordered the conquest of Wake, Midway and the Aleutian Islands, forming a strong outer perimeter.

During the Japanese blitzkrieg that followed, Admiral Nagumo and the 1st Air Fleet supported campaigns throughout the Pacific. Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Borneo, Java, the Celebes, the Philippines, New Guinea, Papua and Guam fell in rapid succession. Without the American Pacific fleet to oppose the Imperial Army and Imperial Navy, the Japanese tide of conquest rolled unabated across the Coral Sea to the Fiji Islands severing the sea lines of communication with Australia and New Zealand. This incredible feat of arms was capped by the Indian Ocean Raid. The operation began with an attack on the British naval base at Columbo, Ceylon destroying 27 aircraft and sinking the destroyer HMS Tenedos and the armed merchant cruiser HMS Hector in port, followed by the sinking of the British aircraft carrier Hermes, the heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire, the destroyer Vampire, the corvette Hollyhock, the depot ship Athelstane and the oiler British Sergeant at sea. This stunning blow to the Royal Navy, coupled with the sinking of the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse east of Kuantan, plus the loss of Hong Kong and Singapore, devastated British sea power in the Pacific causing Admiral James Sommerville to abandon the Indian Ocean and retreat to East Africa. The sheer scope of her Pacific conquests gave the Japanese Empire nearly limitless resources to draw upon, immense depth to absorb the inevitable American counter attack and, perhaps most importantly, the precious gift of time for her tenacious soldiers and sailors to prepare a formidable defensive network. These factors added two bloody years and tens of thousands of casualties to the war before the brutal conflict reached its final conclusion.

What Was

In reality of course Admiral Nagumo took counsel of his fears [14] and withdrew after the second strike on Pearl Harbor. As the Kido Butai slipped away Japan’s best chance to win the Pacific war sailed with it. Remarks attributed to Admiral Yamamoto indicate his keen assessment of the situation and proved remarkably prophetic, “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success. . . I fear all we have done is awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.” The Japanese flood tide of victory was stemmed at the Battle of Coral Sea and ebbed completely at Midway when Admiral Nagumo’s fear of American carrier borne airpower became reality. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor all ships but the Arizona, Oklahoma[15] and Utah were raised, repaired and, christened “The Ghost Fleet”, served gallantly in the great campaigns that followed. Joined by hundreds of new ships and thousands of planes, the survivors of Pearl Harbor exacted a terrible retribution on the Kido Butai.

Admiral Nagumo’s decision proved disastrous; Admiral Yamamoto’s prediction remarkably prescient. But there was more at work here than the relative skill of these leaders. Three days short of six months after Japan’s incomplete but nonetheless stunning victory at Pearl Harbor the American navy decisively defeated the Imperial fleet at Midway. Phase One of the Pacific War, the Japanese Blitzkrieg, ended and Phase Two, the build up for an Allied counter offensive, began. This section will examine several seemingly insignificant incidents, elements of the human factor and chance in the vast equation, that greatly influenced the war’s outcome.

Pearl Harbor, 07 December 1941

Fleet exercises conducted in 1928, 1932 and 1938 thoroughly demonstrated the vulnerability of Pearl Harbor to attack by carrier borne aircraft. Ignoring the results of those war games, disregarding repeated (if conflicting and confusing) warnings from Washington D. C. and displaying a remarkable lack of caution for a senior naval officer, Admiral Kimmel, Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC) did nothing to ensure the security of the American Pacific fleet moored at Pearl Harbor. Misplacing his confidence in Lieutenant General Short, Commander Hawaiian Department, charged with the land and air defense of Hawaii and abrogating his responsibilities to Rear Admiral Bloch, Commandant of the 14th Naval District, tasked with the naval defense of Hawaii, Admiral Kimmel invited disaster upon the Pacific fleet. As a result of his inaction, as enemy planes approached, American sailors were complacently enjoying Condition Four, holiday routine on that notorious Sunday morning. He did, however, take steps to reinforce the garrisons at Wake Island and Midway.

On 01 December Admiral Kimmel ordered a squadron of Marine fighters transported to Wake Island via USS Enterprise. On 05 December, another squadron embarked upon USS Lexington bound for Midway. By chance, USS Saratoga was in port on the West Coast as that infamous day dawned. Accordingly these three warships with their cruiser and destroyer escorts were spared the carnage visited upon the remainder of the Pacific fleet by Admiral Nagumo’s first wave of 140 bombers and 50 fighters and second wave of 132 bombers and 81 fighters. The consequences of Admiral Kimmel’s inaction at Pearl Harbor are well documented. The results of his decision to protect Wake Island and Midway are three fold:

• Concerned with the location of the American carriers Admiral Nagumo adamantly disapproved the coup de gras ardently requested by Commanders Fuchida and Genda. A follow on strike against the fuel tank farms, repair facilities, sub pens and remaining surface ships would have truly crippled the American fleet setting back any counter offensive for at least a year or more. Given additional time to prepare, the bloody island hopping campaigns of 1942 – 1944 would have been even more costly in time, manpower and materiel. It is ironic Admiral Nagumo did not display the same concern for American carriers at Midway six months later.

• Prior to World War II, many of America’s senior admirals stubbornly clung to the unfulfilled promise of Jutland – decisive battle at sea whose outcome hung on weight of shell and depth of armor plate. The loss of America’s battleships forced even her most hidebound Admirals to accept and utilize the aircraft carrier as the dominant surface warship it truly was.

• War Plan Orange and its successor Rainbow 3 called for immediate relief of the Philippines by the Navy. Charging into the guns of the Imperial fleet reinforced by carrier assets and supplemented by land based air support invited disaster worse than Pearl Harbor. The loss of America’s battleships forced a revision of those war plans to suit remaining assets, namely the carriers Enterprise, Lexington and Saratoga. The resultant strategy was not only more prudent but also took advantage of America’s overwhelming industrial superiority and proved more effective in the long term.

04 June 1942 Midway

The Japanese were quick to exploit their tactical success at Pearl Harbor. Malaya, Hong Kong, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies and Burma rapidly fell to combined army and navy forces in a Japanese blitzkrieg. At this point most Japanese admirals argued for a concerted push toward Port Moresby, Papua to complete the conquest of New Guinea, combined with a continued drive to Tulagi in the Solomon Islands to seize control of the Coral Sea region. Capture of these critical areas would isolate Australia and, quite possibly, lure the remnants of the American navy to its destruction leaving Hawaii, Midway and the Aleutian Islands vulnerable.

On 18 April 1942, American audacity changed everything. The Doolittle raid on Tokyo humiliated the Imperial Army and Navy causing grave loss of face. While tactically insignificant those sixteen B-25 twin engine bombers flown from the aptly named carrier Hornet stung the Japanese psyche, radically altered Japanese strategy, focusing complete attention on Midway, the perceived weak link in the Empire’s defensive perimeter.

Overriding all opposition with his tremendous prestige, Admiral Yamamoto pushed forward a convoluted plan calculated to finish the destruction of the American fleet begun at Pearl Harbor. Practically every unit in the Imperial surface fleet (sixteen submarines, seven aircraft carriers, eleven battleships, ten cruisers, sixty destroyers, eighteen troop transports, five seaplane carriers and four minesweepers) played a part in Yamamoto’s master stratagem. Designed to deceive and confuse the Americans, luring her carriers into an enormous trap, Yamamoto’s plan took into account every contingency except American capabilities and intentions and the element of chance, what Clausewitz called the “friction” of war and others term the fortunes of war. The primary objective, destruction of the American carriers, got lost as the grandiose scheme evolved. Disregarding the basic principles of war Yamamoto divided his enormous fleet into five separate forces. The Midway Occupation Force was further subdivided in five distinct groups. Sailing independently none of these forces or groups could support the others. J. F. C. Fuller aptly describes Yamamoto’s strategic concept with this analysis, “This plan was radically unsound and the distribution of forces was deplorable. Both were complex; the aim was confused and the principle of concentration ignored.”

Even so, even taking into account the intelligence gathered through cryptographic analysis, Yamamoto’s Carrier Striking Force consisting of four aircraft carriers, two battleships, two cruisers and twelve destroyers under the command of Admiral Nagumo should have been more than a match for the American fleet lurking northwest of Midway. The United States could muster only three carriers, seven cruisers and fourteen destroyers for this crucial battle.

Battle is Joined

Nagumo’s Carrier Striking Force turned into the wind, launching the first wave of fighters and bombers against Midway at 0430. Search planes from the carriers Akagi and Kaga as well as seaplanes from the battleship Haruna and the heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma immediately followed seeking the American fleet. Completed in 1938 and 1939 respectively, Tone and Chikuma were Japan’s latest, most modern cruiser design. Measuring 650 X 61 X 21 feet and displacing 15,200 tons, they carried eight 8-inch guns in four turrets forward, eight 5-inch guns in secondary batteries amidships, up to fifty-seven 25mm antiaircraft guns and twelve 24-inch torpedo tubes. Purpose built for scouting operations, the after decks were fitted catapults, cranes and facilities for five seaplanes. Ideal reconnaissance platforms Tone and Chikuma were given the center lanes of the planned search pattern.

As it had at Pearl Harbor however, the human factor intervened once again. The catapult aboard Tone malfunctioned delaying the launch of its aircraft until 0500. Engine trouble also prevented the Chikuma from launching her seaplane as scheduled. Its flight path would have taken it directly over the American carriers a scant 215 miles away but further engine trouble caused it to turn back early. Consequently it was not until 0820 that Nagumo received confirmation of the presence and location of the American carriers from Tone’s aircraft. By then it was too late. American torpedo planes and dive-bombers were already inbound.

Although the torpedo planes were ineffective, their near suicidal attack prevented the Japanese carriers from launching additional planes and drew the fighter cover down to sea level setting up the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu for the follow on dive bombers. Poor operational planning by Yamamoto, engine trouble on the Chikuma ’s aircraft, a catapult malfunction onboard the Tone and a series of poor tactical decisions by Nagumo doomed the Japanese Carrier Strike Force. Decks crowded with planes, fuel and ordnance the pride of the Imperial Fleet were soon flaming wrecks. 300 miles astern with the main body consisting of three battleships, one carrier, two seaplane carriers and twelve destroyers Yamamoto could do nothing to avert disaster.

In exchange for the carrier Yorktown and the destroyer Hammann American forces sank all four carriers of Nagumo’s Striking force as well as the heavy cruiser Mikuma. Badly damaged, the cruiser Mogami spent the next year in Truk undergoing repairs. More importantly the Japanese lost their best naval pilots and most experienced aircrews. This was a loss from which they would never recover. Midway ended the Japanese threat to Hawaii and Australia, halted Japanese expansion and restored the balance of power in the Pacific. The initiative now passed to the Allies. To drive the fanatical and tenacious Japanese back to the Home Islands required another three years of bloody combat under some of the worst conditions in military history but Allied soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines proved equal to the task. Its initial advantage squandered at Midway, Japan could not compete with the industrial leviathan that was the United States as Yamamoto had predicted.

Part Five – The Devil is in the Details

After the disaster at Dieppe, SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) was painfully aware of this maxim. Consequently, it went to great lengths to cover all possible contingencies when the Normandy invasion plan was drafted. In order to coordinate the movement of 7000 ships, 12000 planes and 160000 men on D-Day and with the specter of Dieppe in mind, the final plan for OPERATION OVERLORD [16] was necessarily a massive document, broad in scope and meticulous in detail. Prepared in an age before computers it was a monumental achievement, a tribute to the dedication of the Allied staff involved in its preparation and is still studied to this day. Yet, in spite of thousands of man hours spent in study and analysis, numerous reviews and revisions, the planners overlooked several critical factors – among them, the presence of the 352nd infantry division, one of the few first rate units in Normandy which savaged the Americans on Omaha beach, and the boscage which greatly aided the German defense, hindering an Allied breakout until 25 July.

Many will remember the aphorism attributed to Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanac of 1757) entitled A little neglect may breed great mischief:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost, For want of a shoe the horse was lost,

For want of a horse the rider was lost, For want of a rider the battle was lost,

For want of a battle the Kingdom was lost, And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Less poetically but with the same conviction born of experience, any commander of any ship worth his salt will tell you, “The devil is in the details.” The story of the CSS Arkansas illustrates the truth of this maxim.

Too Little, Too Late

Construction began on CSS Arkansas and CSS Tennessee at Fort Pickering, just below Memphis, in October 1861. Scheduled for completion no later than 24 December 1861, difficulties locating and transporting lumber, armor, boilers, marine engines, and heavy naval guns severely delayed construction. So humble an item as nails were obtained only by an appeal to Governor Pettus. Oakum could not be found anywhere, for any price. Cotton served as caulking. With materials finally in hand, shortages of skilled labor caused further delay. Appeals to the army to release carpenters and ironworkers fell on deaf ears. Leaving CSS Tennessee unfinished, the builder, John Shirley, concentrated all available manpower on the Arkansas. When news of the fall of New Orleans reached Memphis, the senior naval officer for the area panicked. Union forces would not approach for over a month. Never the less, he ordered Arkansas removed to Greenwood, Mississippi and her sister ship, the Tennessee, burned on her stocks to prevent capture. The Arkansas languished at Greenwood until Lieutenant Isaac N. Brown, her new Captain, arrived. Reporting for duty, Brown found an incomplete hull, engines in pieces on the deck and guns without carriages. Railroad iron, intended for her armor, lay at the bottom of the river, the barge containing it having sunk. A twenty-seven year Navy veteran and a man of enormous energy and an indomitable will, Brown knew how to get things done. Recovering the railroad iron, he ordered the Arkansas towed to Yazoo City, Mississippi where construction facilities were somewhat better. Driving his crew, the civilian workers and enlisting the help of Army labor, Arkansas got underway under her own power five weeks later. With sixty soldiers to help crew his gun deck, Arkansas steamed down the Yazoo River on 14 July 1862 toward Vicksburg and the combined fleets of Admiral Farragut, Admiral Davis and Admiral Porter. On 15 July Arkansas engaged, heavily damaged and scattered the ironclad Carondolet, the wooden gunboat Tyler and the ram Queen of the West that had been sent to intercept her. Soon after the Union fleet of about twenty ships hove into view. Captain Brown described the sight as “a forest of masts and smokestacks.” Ringing up full speed, Arkansas smashed through the federal fleet, taking grievous damage but giving much more. Surviving the gauntlet of enemy ships, Arkansas tied up at Vicksburg to the sound of wild cheering. Elated citizens rushed to board her but recoiled in horror at the sight of the carnage on her gun deck. Awash in blood and brains and body parts, the interior of the casemate resembled a slaughterhouse or a scene from Dante’s Inferno. For the next week Arkansas endured repeated attacks from the humiliated Union fleet. Her crew dwindled to twenty able bodied men but she survived each attack, taking and giving great damage. Unable to destroy the Arkansas, and with water levels on the river dropping, the Union fleet dispersed. Admiral Davis retreated to St. Louis; Admiral Farragut retired to New Orleans. They would not return for four months. The first siege of Vicksburg was over.

In the interim Arkansas was lost. General Earl Van Dorn ordered Arkansas to support a land attack on Baton Rouge. Steaming down river both engines failed within sight of the federal fleet and Arkansas drifted ashore. Unable to move or bring her guns to bear, Arkansas was helpless. Under heavy fire from USS Essex, her crew opened the magazines, scattered powder and shells about the gun deck, fired her and abandoned ship. Breaking free of the shore she drifted down river with Union vessels following at a respectful distance. After an hour she exploded, raining debris on USS Essex and others.

Consider the possibilities if the Arkansas had survived and had been present when General Grant and the Union fleet returned to Vicksburg in 1863. Consider the possibilities if both the Arkansas and Tennessee had been completed in a timely manner and available to defend Memphis in early 1862. For the want of common iron spikes, history literally turned on a lack of nails. The devil is indeed in the details.


Emperor Frederick III, head of the House of Hapsburg, German King (1440-1493), Holy Roman Emperor (1452-1493) and last Emperor receiving an Imperial Coronation at Rome is noted for reuniting the family lands under Hapsburg dominion. His greatest coup however, was the acquisition of Burgundy, the Netherlands and Belgium setting Austria on the course to Empire. To be sure there were numerous setbacks in this process for Frederick was not a particularly strong king. He was however, an astute politician, single minded of purpose and had the good fortune to outlive most of his opponents. Frederick’s guiding principle throughout his long reign is summed up in the initials A. E. I. O. U., which he had inscribed on all his personal possessions as a constant reminder of his ultimate goal and daily affirmation of his final objective. In Latin his dictum read, “Austriae Est Imperare Orbi Universo.” (It is Austria’s destiny to rule the world.) In German the maxim reads, “Alles Erdreich Ist Oesterreich Unterthan.” (The whole world is subject to Austria.)

The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire began on 28 June 1918 near the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo. Archduke Franz Ferdinand [17] escaped a bombing attack at 10:10 A.M., only to fall victim to a 9mm slug fired from a Belgian Fabrique Nationale model 1910 semi-automatic pistol that same afternoon. En route to the hospital to visit those injured that morning, the Archduke’s driver took a wrong turn. That mistake placed the Archduke and his wife in the path of Gavrilo Princip, [18] a Serbian nationalist, as he emerged from hiding after the failed bomb attack. That the Hapsburgs no longer rule anywhere, not even in Austria, is apt commentary on the transient nature of political and military power. Continuing conflicts between Serbian, Croatian and Muslim groups in the Balkans serve notice on the limits of nation building in the former Austria-Hungary (or anywhere for that matter) and the far-reaching effects when Empires fall. How the Hapsburgs and Austria met their demise is further testament to Caesar’s dictum, “Great events are the result of small causes.”

Part 2 >
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[1]. Wallace initially marched his men down the Shunpike to intersection of the Hamburg-Purdy Road. Had he turned left there and continued on the Hamburg-Purdy Road he would have emerged on the Confederate left flank or rear while the Confederates were engaged at the Hornet’s Nest changing the course of the battle on the first day. But for one fateful decision made under the pressure of battle Wallace might have emerged from Shiloh a hero instead of a scapegoat, gathering glory rather than reproach. Reacting to orders from Grant delivered by a near frantic courier Wallace instead decided to retrace his steps. Rather than reverse march however he compounded the error by counter marching back to the River Road where his division had started the day and proceeding from there to Pittsburg Landing. Consequently his troops did not come on line until after 1900 as the fighting was ending on 06 April.

[2]. Garfield was shot twice with a .44 caliber Webley Bulldog revolver. One bullet grazed his arm, the other could not be found. Alexander Graham Bell might have saved the President’s life with a metal detector he devised to locate the slug. Regrettably, the metal springs in the bed upon which Garfield lay distorted the instrument’s signal. The detector tested perfectly but Garfield’s physician, Doctor Willard Bliss (the doctor’s first name was Doctor) would not allow further examination of his patient.

[3]. The events of this expedition are said to have inspired Joseph Conrad to write Heart of Darkness, which, in turn, inspired the movie Apocalypse Now.

[4]. Consider asbestos, miracle product of the forties and fifties, bane of the eighties and nineties.

[5]. China was to Japan what Russia was to Germany – a bottomless pit into which she poured the majority of her troops and resources even as the British and Americans closed in.

[6]. Born in 1894 the son of a shoemaker Zhukov was apprenticed to his uncle, a furrier, after graduation from school. There he might have remained but historic events revealed other talents. Drafted in 1913 Zhukov served with distinction in the cavalry and was selected for NCO training in 1916. One year later he joined the fledgling Red Army where his audacity and intelligence earned him a commission in 1920. During the Russian Civil War Zhukov served with such future notables as A I Yeremenko and K K Rokossovsky. Assigned to Frunze Academy from 1929 – 1930 excerpts from his fitness reports highlighted character traits that would lead him to the top of the Red Army – “Commander of strong will and decisiveness” -“Wealth of initiative” – “Loves military matters and constantly improves himself” During his long career Zhukov earned a well deserved reputation as a tough, no nonsense commander. Envied for his success and feared for his popularity Zhukov was banished in 1946 by Stalin and again in 1957 by Khrushchev.

[7]. One of the more innovative defensive measures used at Nomonhan was the use of piano wire ironically imported from Japan. So thin it was nearly invisible when strung along the front lines yet its high tensile strength allowed it to foul sprockets and tracks effectively immobilizing many Japanese tanks which were then destroyed by Soviet artillery.

[8]. Watching the Winter War Adolph Hitler concluded, “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.” Had Hitler studied Nomonhan more closely he might have drawn a different conclusion and spared the German 6th Army the fate of its Japanese counterpart.

[9]. The Akagi (Red Castle) and the Kaga (Increased Joy) were products of the Washington and London Naval Treaties – a converted battle cruiser and converted battleship respectively. They were comparable to the Lexington. Hiryu (Flying Dragon) and Soryu (Blue Dragon) were based on the Mogami class heavy cruiser sharing a similar hull design and machinery. They were comparable to the Yorktown. Shokaku (Soaring Crane) and Zuikaku (Auspicious Crane) were Japan’s largest, newest and most powerful carriers. Purpose built after Japan abrogated the London Naval treaty, they were comparable to the American Essex class.

[10]. The destroyers Akebono, Akigumo, Arare, Hamakaze, Isokaze, Kagero, Kasumi, Sazanami, Shiranuhi, Tanikaze, Urakaze and Ushio sailed with the Pearl Harbor Strike Force. Akebono, Sazanami and Ushio were detached prior to the attack to bombard Midway Island. Supply Group One consisting of the Kyokuto Maru, Kenyo Maru, Kokuyo Maru and Shinkoku Maru and Supply Group Two consisting of the Toho Maru, Nippon Maru and Toei Maru provided support for the Japanese Task Force during its historic voyage.

[11]. Commissioned in 1911 the battleship Utah, now designated AG-16, was utilized as a gunnery training ship.

[12]. In addition to the battleships listed, the Cassin (DD-372), Downs (DD-375) and Ogala (CM-4) were also sunk. The Raleigh (CL-7), Honolulu (CL-48), Helena (CL-50), Shaw (DD-373), Curtis (AV-4) and Vestal (AR-4) were damaged. All were raised, repaired and served with the Ghost Fleet.

[13]. Unbeknownst to Nagumo Enterprise had been dispatched to deliver additional aircraft to Wake, Lexington was ferrying planes to Midway and Saratoga was undergoing repairs on the west coast.

[14]. General George S. Patton advised, “In planning any operation, it is vital to remember and constantly repeat to oneself two things: ‘In war, nothing is impossible provided you use audacity, ‘and ‘Do not take counsel of your fears.'” Fortunately for the United States, Admiral Nagumo did not heed his counsel.

[15]. Oklahoma was raised but never rebuilt. Arizona and Utah remain as memorials to those killed at Pearl Harbor.

[16]. Operation Overlord was in fact the compilation of numerous subordinate plans covering Deception, Logistics, Interdiction and so on. The actual invasion plan for example was code named NEPTUNE.

[17]. Franz Ferdinand was an advocate of increased federalism and favored tri-lateralism. Under this concept Austria-Hungary would have been reorganized by combining the Slavic lands within the Empire into a third crown. A Slavic kingdom would have eased tensions in that heterogeneous nation and served as a safeguard against Serbian irredentism. Consequently, the Archduke was seen as a threat by Serbian Nationalists. Indeed, Princip testified at his trial that preventing Franz Ferdinand’s planned reforms was one of the motivating factors in the assassination.

[18]. After learning that the bombing attempt had failed Princip went to Schiller’s Delicatessen. When Princip came out later he saw Franz Ferdinand’s car reversing, having taken a wrong turn. The car then stalled giving Princip the opportunity to approach and shoot the Archduke and his wife at short range.

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